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Mosaic with Gladiators and Referee

Mosaic with Gladiators and Referee


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Ancient mosaic of the real Gladiator found

A chance discovery by archaeologists has brought to light a mosaic nearly 2,000 years old depicting what may have been a real-life version of the Roman combatant played by Russell Crowe in the film Gladiator.

The mosaic was found as Italian researchers carried out work on the spectacular Villa dei Quintili, south of Rome and home to the sports-loving Emperor Commodus.

Commodus, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in the film, was known to enjoy gladiatorial combat and had a small amphitheatre in which fighters would train, near the villa, which Commodus had seized after having its owners executed on a trumped-up charge of treason. It was nearby that the mosaic was found - picturing a gladiator named Montanus holding a trident alongside a referee who appears to be pronouncing him the victor over a prone opponent.

Riccardo Frontoni, who is leading the dig, said: "Historically, this is a very significant and exciting discovery because of the location where it was found: the Villa dei Quintili, which we know was Commodus's residence.

"It's close to the area where there was a small amphitheatre, and his love of blood sports is well known.

"The mosaics are in excellent condition and show the figure of a gladiator with the name Montanus. It's possible that Montanus may have been a favourite of Commodus and that the mosaic was dedicated to him."

Commodus was emperor from AD180 to 192, when he was strangled in his bath by the wrestler Narcissus, at the age of 31. He is depicted in the film as a scheming, bloodthirsty megalomaniac who eventually murders the character played by Crowe, the gladiator Maximus.

The real-life Commodus occasionally dressed up as a gladiator himself and fought in the arena, a practice that scandalised polite Roman society, which regarded such fighters as occupying the lowest rungs on the social ladder.

But while his arena opponents frequently survived because they submitted to the emperor, he is known to have enjoyed killing his sparring partners.

Appreciation of the potential value of the new discovery has not been confined to the archaeological world. Just hours after it was shown to The Sunday Telegraph, thieves tried to prise the 10 sq m scene from the ground, damaging the mosaic.

Mr Frontoni said: "We are disappointed that someone has tried to steal it. However, the damage was relatively small and the pieces that were broken off have been recovered, so we should be able to restore it."


Roman Gladiators: How They Compare to Modern Sporting Heroes

UPDATE! This post was originally published on April 4 th , 2013. American football season is in full swing and the players are back in the news for their behavior on and off the field. As the NFL grapples with scandal, the game goes on and fans all over the country are gathering each week, suiting up in their best team apparel, breaking out the tailgate, switching on the big screen or even traveling to the stadium to cheer on their favorite players and teams. We thought this would be a perfect time to republish this post about the similarities between our modern sporting celebrities and the ancient heroes of the gladiatorial games. You’ll be amazed to learn how much our modern athletes have in common with their ancient counterparts. And don’t miss Part 1 of this 2-part series, Super Bowl XLVII and the Superstars of Ancient Rome, which illuminates even more fascinating comparisons.

As you know from reading our earlier blog post in January, Super Bowl XLVII and the Superstars of Ancient Rome had a lot in common with today’s American football stars. There are so many intriguing parallels that we thought the topic deserved another look. So, enjoy part two of this series exploring the connections between the Roman gladiators and the sports celebrities of today.

Much like today’s modern sporting heroes, gladiators had a lot of sex appeal. Just as women today frequent events to see their favourite crush, ancient women would attend gladiatorial games thrilled to see their favourite fighter. And while modern women sometimes have the ability to act on their desires by approaching their sporting crushes at social gatherings or contacting them on Facebook, Roman women did not have the same access. Instead, for the more advantaged woman, she paid to have her desires fulfilled by her favourite gladiator in his cell.

Today’s sporting heroes have lots of merchandise with their names and faces celebrated on everything from t-shirts to cereal boxes. Gladiators also had items that commemorated them and their valiant battles. Two examples are the Colchester Vase and the Gladiator mosaic at the Galleria Borghese.

The Colchester Vase depicts different classes of gladiator fighting each other and also gives the names of each gladiator above him, such as Valentinus and Secundus. From the image below, one can see a secutor facing off against a retiarius the secutor class of gladiator was cultivated to fight the retiarius class[1]. They were equipped with a tall rectangular shield, a helmet similar to that of the murmillo, greaves and a gladius. To protect the wearer from the deadly net and trident of the retiarius, the secutor’s helmet covered the whole face with two small holes for the eyes and was rounded[2]. While on the other hand, the retiarius was very lightly armoured with only an arm guard, called a manica, in addition to his net and trident. As well as these two individuals, the Colchester Vase depicts a bestiarius. A bestiarius was a beast fighter and in this particular case he is depicted fighting a bear with hunting dogs and a companion.

Detail of the Villa Borghese gladiator mosaic. Image courtesy of Neddyseagoon.

The Gladiator mosaic at the Galleria Borghese also depicts gladiators fighting and has their names written above the figures, such as Baccibus and Astacius. Here again one can discern particular classes of gladiators, such as the secutor and retiarius. An interesting note on this mosaic is the Greek letter Ɵ, for θάνατος meaning “dead”, beside one of the gladiators, who obviously was slain in the fight. This mosaic is a pictorial recreation of a fight that actually occurred and identifies the dead gladiators as well as the victorious ones. Just as modern famous sporting events are memorialized, we can see that famous gladiatorial contests were treated in the same way.

Another interesting similarity between the gladiatorial games and today’s sporting events is the attire of the players. Just as the gladiators wore armour to protect their bodies, many sports today require the players to wear protective gear. One example is American football. While the armour of the gladiator was meant to stop sword and spear thrusts, the armour of the American footballer is there to lessen the impact of the opposition’s tackle.

Unfortunately, armour and padding is not enough to prevent many injuries, and like today’s players, gladiators were a significant investment and were cared for especially well. Similar to modern athletes, gladiators had a highly regulated diet this consisted of dried fruit, barley, oatmeal, boiled beans and ash, which the Romans believed help fortify the body[3]. After training and fights, the gladiators would be given massages and had access to high class medical care to make sure their master’s investment was properly looked after and fighting fit for the next bout.

Mosaic at the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, 4th century AD

Today, when the game or match gets especially out of hand, we have referees who step in and make sure the rules are obeyed. Gladiatorial games also employed referees to help officiate the match. There was the senior referee, called the summa rudis, and an assistant to help him. They had long staffs, called rudes, by which they could separate opponents or caution them. Just like modern day referees, they could pause or stop the match whenever they deemed it necessary[4]. A mosaic from the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid depicts a referee officiating a gladiatorial contest. He is clearly identifiable in a white tunic holding his staff and gesturing to the gladiators.

As in modern times, where one can see the likes of David Beckham spending an evening with Prince Harry in one of the elite London clubs, gladiators were also known to attend banquets and events at the Emperor’s request, an invitation not to be turned down when proffered by such emperors as Domitian and Commodus. Also, just as Princes William and Harry are known to play in charity polo matches, emperors such as Caligula, Titus and Commodus were known to have frequented the arena themselves and take on the persona of a gladiator. Commodus was said to have killed one hundred lions in a day, when he styled himself as a bestiarius [5].

Riot in the amphitheatre fresco from Pompeii, now in the National Archaeological Museum at Naples

If you love sports today you probably support a specific team, such as the Giants or the Seahawks. The Romans were no different. They supported certain classes of gladiators and each group had its own name: the Romans that supported the secutor class of gladiator (equipped with a large rectangular shield) were called secutarii, while the thraex and murmillo classes’ supporters were called parmularii because those gladiators were equipped with small shields[6]. The same can be said for local rivalries. Just as today when certain groups of football fans (or thugs, as most people would call them) clash before and after the match, the same would occur sporadically after gladiatorial contests. One such occasion occurred at Pompeii during the reign of Nero in 59 AD insults that were traded by Pompeian and Nucerian fans sparked a riot during a set of gladiatorial games, which caused Nero to ban games in Pompeii for ten years. This incident is depicted on a fresco in the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples, taken from a domus in Pompeii[7].

We may think that our flashy celebrities and loud, exciting sporting events are modern-day creations, but it’s easy to see that the Romans were getting rowdy and turning players/fighters into heroes long before our modern obsession with sporting games. It’s quite obvious that fans’ adoration—and adrenaline highs–trump the boundaries of time and culture.

-Author: Russell Fleming has a Masters degree in Ancient History and Classical Archaeology and an MLitt degree in Ancient History from the University of St. Andrews.

1. Junkelmann, M., Das Spiel mit dem Tod. So kämpften Roms Gladiatoren. Mainz am Rhein. 2000. 59-61

2. Junkelmann 2000.40-41 & 61-63

3. Curry, A., “The Gladiator Diet”. Archaeology 61 (6). 2008.

4. Futrell, A., A Sourcebook on the Roman Games. Oxford. 2006. 101

5. Gibbon, E. & Womersley, D., The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York. 2000. 118


Gladiators, combatants at games

Gladiators were armed combatants who performed in the arena during Roman games called munera. They could be slaves, freeborn, or freedmen (ex-slaves). Slave gladiators were usually trained professionals based in a training school (ludus) run by a manager (lanista). Freeborn or freed gladiators were volunteers who fought under contract to a manager (such fighters were termed auctorati). There were different styles of armaments, carefully considered to pitch advantage against disadvantage. Thus the net-man (retiarius) was largely unprotected but carried a net and a trident with a long reach, whereas his opponent (secutor) carried a short sword but was more heavily armored and had a large shield. Evidence from gladiatorial graveyards and gravestones confirms the violent, often lethal nature of the contests, though a win could be achieved without a kill and the fighters clearly took pride in their skills and status with their peers and their fans. Despite their popularity, gladiators were officially regarded as infames (people of bad reputation) and ranked alongside or below actors, prostitutes, pimps, and bankrupts as social and moral outcasts. Roman sources date the first gladiatorial performances in the city to 264 bce , and gladiators continued to perform into the 5th century ce , when financial and pragmatic concerns (rather than moral ones) brought the shows to an end. Modern scholars theorize a variety of reasons for the popularity of gladiatorial shows among the Romans and the role gladiators played in Roman culture.

Keywords

Subjects

Updated in this version

Text expanded to provide fuller discussion of the evolution of gladiatorial spectacles, gladiator types, and the social status and commemoration of gladiators in Roman society. Bibliography updated and expanded to reflect current research.

Origins

Gladiators were trained, professional fighters who engaged in single combats in the Roman arena. 1 They are thus to be distinguished from the professional huntsmen (venatores) and beast-handlers (bestiarii) who performed in the morning shows, and the executioners (carnifices) whose activities filled the lunch-time break. Gladiators habitually fought in stand-alone pairs, though mass fights are on record. A decree from the 2nd century ce fixing prices for gladiatorial shows clearly distinguishes group fighters (gregarii) from the professional class of gladiator, and assesses them at a much lower price ( 2

The traditional date for the introduction of gladiatorial combats to Rome is 264 bce , when three pairs fought to honour the deceased father of D. Junius Brutus (Livy Per. 16, Val. Max. 2.4.7). Ancient sources variously ascribe the origin of the combats to the Etruscans (Nic. Dam. Athletics 4.153) or to the Campanians (Livy 9.40.17). Since no independent evidence of gladiatorial fights has been identified in Etruscan culture, while convincing precursors for bloody funerary combats can be found in Lucanian tomb paintings of the 4th century bce , South Central Italy appears the more likely source for the practice. Particularly noteworthy in the Lucanian images is that the combatants use not only standard military equipment but also specially modified weapons designed for the exhibition, i.e., sharpened poles held at the back end. It is unclear whether or not these Lucanian fights were to the death.

Evolution

The association of gladiatorial exhibitions (munera) and funerary commemoration continued after their introduction to Rome, and the spectacles grew in both scale and elaboration. In 216 bce , 22 pairs fought over three days at games held to mark the funeral of a prominent senator in 200 bce , 25 pairs in 183 bce , 60 pairs and in 174 bce , 37 pairs. The chief reason for this growth is that munera, unlike the ludi (public games), were funded not by the state but by individual sponsors (munerarii or editores) the staging of munera thus became another opportunity for prominent and ambitious politicians to compete for popular favour. The staging of games, both public ludi and private munera, was associated primarily with the aedileship, one of the junior magistracies in the Republic’s “run of offices” (cursus honorum): lavish shows, especially spectacles they themselves had paid for, were a way to ride the popular favour thus earned to higher office.

A crucial break with tradition came when munera were decoupled from the funerals of relatives and staged independently. Thus, in 65 bce Julius Caesar, as aedile, funded a vastly expensive munus not at the funeral of his father but in his memory (his father had died some twenty years earlier). So extravagant were Caesar’s preparations that the Senate issued a decree limiting the number of gladiators that could appear in any one show (Dio 37.8.1–2 Suet. Iul. 10.2). In 46 bce Caesar again put on a lavish munus to honour the memory of his daughter Julia, who had died eight years earlier. After this, the spectacles increasingly became mass entertainments staged primarily to benefit the public image of the sponsor rather than to mark the death of a relative. (The depth of the religious associations embedded in munera remains a matter of uncertainty.) In the imperial era, spectacles were staged by the emperors at Rome, either on their own account or in the names of their relatives, on a previously unimaginable scale. Augustus (RG 22.1) boasts of holding eight munera at which 10,000 men fought (he does not state in what capacity), while Trajan marked his conquest of Dacia with games lasting 123 days that included 5,000 pairs of gladiators and 11,000 beasts (Dio 68.15.1). Inscriptions and other evidence show local magnates around the empire following the emperors’ lead and putting on shows according to their means some towns built their own amphitheaters or modified existing public venues, such as theaters or stadia, to accommodate the combats. Competition among these local sponsors to outdo predecessors and set the bar high for future editores was no less fierce than it had been among the aristocrats of Republican Rome. The inscription on the so-called Magerius Mosaic from Thysdrus (2nd or 3rd century ce ) has the crowd shouting out something like this: “By your example let future generations learn of the show and how it was staged! Let your predecessors hear about it! Where did such a show come from? When was one like it put on? As an example to the quaestors [i.e., junior municipal officials who would advance to become sponsors of games], you will put on a spectacle! You will put it on at your own expense! This is your day!” (AE 1967 .549). 3

As a result of this competitive ethos, the shows grew not only in scale but in elaboration, as new “attractions” were added: eventually, a full day’s agenda of events (called munera iusta atque legitima, Suet. Claud. 21.1 see also Dio 73[72].19.1–2) might include morning shows of beasts, beast fights, and hunts (venationes) and a lunchtime show of public executions (summa supplicia) in various modes, including exposure to beasts. The afternoon was occupied with the gladiatorial bouts. Stagecraft increased in sophistication, as shown by Caesar’s addition of a series of passages under the square in the Roman Forum where the shows were normally staged in Rome. The passages allowed props and performers to appear in the arena as if by magic, prefiguring the labyrinth of passages, chambers, corridors, and winches installed under the Colosseum’s arena floor in the later 1st century ce and identified in amphitheaters elsewhere, such as Merida and Tarraco in Spain, Puteoli and Capua in Italy, and El Djem in North Africa. In this way, the staging of games was a sophisticated and complicated procedure, with much effort and ingenuity devoted to making the shows as impressive and varied as possible.

Figure 1. The hypogeum in the Colosseum, Rome, c. 90–100 ce .

Figure 2. The hypogeum in the Colosseum, Rome, c. 90–100 ce .

Gladiator Types and Fights

Over two dozen distinct types of gladiators are identifiable from the iconographic, epigraphic, and literary records. 4 The most popular types (or “armatures,” as gladiatorial panoplies are called) were the murmillo (“fishman”) and the Thraex (“Thracian”). The former wore an elaborate, wide-brimmed and visored helmet with a fish motif on it, carried a large rectangular shield, wore an arm guard (called a manica), and had his forward shin padded and protected with an iron plate (ocrea). As an offensive weapon he carried a short sword. His standard opponent, the Thracian, wore a similar helmet, carried a smaller, square shield, had greaves on both legs, wore leg padding to the hip, and carried a short stabbing sword bent in the middle. The popularity of these armatures is reflected in these being the only two gladiatorial types known to have had a following among the fans: the parmularii (“small shielders”) supported Thracians, while the scutarii (“large shielders”) supported murmillones (M. Aur. Med. 1.5).

Many other types are attested. There were the retiarii (“net-men”), the only unhelmeted gladiator, who wielded a trident and a net, and went largely unarmored the secutores (“pursuers”), the usual opponent of the retiarii (and so sometimes dubbed contraretiarii) with smooth visored helmet, large shield, and short sword the equites (“cavalrymen”) who entered the arena on horseback but mostly fought on foot with round shield and sword, wearing tunics the hoplomachi (“armed fighters”) equipped like Thracians but with a small round shields and spears the essedarii (“charioteers”) whose dramatic entrance in a chariot was followed by combat on foot and the provocatores (“challengers”) with a feathered helmet, a large shield, and short sword. There were highly specialized types also, such as the dimachaeri (“two-swordmen”) or laquearii (“lasso-men”) whose names are self-explanatory, or the andabatae who appears to have fought blind wearing a helmet with a solid visor, or the scissores (“carvers”) whose left arm sported a cuff that ended in a vicious-looking crescent-shaped blade.

Figure 3. Murmillo and hoplomachus. Mosaic from Bad Kreuznach, Germany. 3rd century ce . CC BY-SA 2.0. This part of the mosaic is heavily restored (see Junkelmann 2008, 99), but both styles of gladiators are readily recognizable. At left is the murmillo, with his large shield, fancy helmet, straight short sword and padded forward leg. His opponent has elaborate leggings, a fancy helmet, and carries a spear, so he is a hoplomachus.

It is particularly noteworthy that all of these gladiators, like their Lucanian antecedents, were not equipped in the manner of normal warriors or soldiers from any known battlefield, but rather were kitted out with gear specifically designed for the show they were a part of. The fights were thus carefully thought-out contests that pitted advantage against disadvantage. While the secutor was well protected, his chest and abdomen were exposed and his short sword required him to get close to land blows. His opponent, the retiarius, was more vulnerable but wielded a longer-range weapon, a trident, to which he added the threat of his ensnaring net. Likewise, the murmillo carried a short sword and a large shield and had to get close to do damage, while his Thracian opponent had a smaller shield but had a bent sword that could stab around corners or get into inaccessible places. Equites and provocatores were armed identically, and so pairs of equites or provocatores fought each other on an equal footing. Some degree of mixing and matching can be discerned in the pairings (murmillones can fight Thracians or hoplomachi scissores can fight retiarii or each other), and equipment could be refined or altered, probably for variety’s sake. Armatures also changed over time: the murmillo had grown more heavily armored by the 3rd century ce , for instance. In addition, rules governed the fights, the lex pugnandi. What these rules were is unknown, but certain moves must have been proscribed, and umpires were on the sand to see the rules enforced as fights progressed. As shown in ancient art, the umpires wore tunics and carried rods with which they could intervene in the contests while maintaining a safe distance. Gladiatorial fights emerge from such evidence as this as rule-bound contests of skill and endurance and not the chaotic bloodbaths that are regularly depicted in modern film or television recreations.

The fights were not necessarily to the death. Gladiators were skilled professionals and that made it economically undesirable for their owners, who had spent considerable resources on their upkeep and training, to see their stock butchered at a rate of 50% for every spectacle. There were three possible outcomes to a fight: a killing blow landed in the course of the contest a forced or voluntary surrender or a draw. Death, therefore, was an acceptable outcome in any given duel, but it was not the inevitable result. If a gladiator was disarmed or injured and decided to surrender, he withdrew from the contest by raising a finger. It also seems that a gladiator could “throw” his opponent to unbalance him and force an appeal. At that point he had lost the bout, and the umpire stepped in and stopped the fight. A decision then had to be made as to whether the loser lived or died, based on the quality of his performance in the contest. The sponsor of the games made this decision—he was the one paying for everything—but the crowd indicated its preference by gesticulating with the thumb (“with the thumb turned,” as the Latin phrase pollice verso puts it) and crying out iugula! iugula! (“cut his throat!”) or making another gesture with the fingers and shouting missus! missus! (“reprieved!”) (Gladiatorial Epitaphs and Cemeteries). Draws, naturally, were rarer and were noted in epitaphs with the phrase stans missus (“reprieved standing”), since neither gladiator had fallen or been injured and forced to surrender.

Figure 4. Reliefs of gladiator fight, Cibyra, Turkey. 3rd century ce .

One format of spectacle, banned by Augustus (Suet. Aug. 45.3), was called sine missione (“without reprieve”). The plainest interpretation of this phrase is that it required the fights to end in death, since reprieve (missio) was excluded. An alternative view is that sine missione merely forced a fight to end in a clear victory, so that reprieve could not be invoked before a winner was determined by combat. 5 To be sure, the texts invoked to support this latter view of sine missione are vague, allusive, and open to competing interpretations (Mart. Spect. 31, Sen. Ep. 92.26). At the very least, it seems clear that without the right of missio the most likely way for a winner to be determined was for one gladiator to be killed or incapacitated by an injury. The sine missione format might not have forced gladiators to fight to the death (although that is possible), but it did force them to fight it out to a bloody finish that is, if a gladiator was disarmed he might ordinarily appeal, but in sine missione spectacles he had to pick up his weapon and continue until a clear result emerged from the combat. Since many facets of how gladiatorial combats played out are unclear from the patchy evidence, details like this are likely to remain uncertain and debatable.

It is unclear how regularly women fought in the arena. The idea of female gladiators appeals to the popular imagination, so that the supposed discovery of burials of gladiatrices in Britain in 2001 and 2010 were widely reported in the international press. (In reality, the evidence is insufficient to determine their professions.) That female gladiators existed is proven by the famous relief from Halicarnassus showing two female gladiators facing off, named “Amazon” and “Achillia,” or notices such as that in Dio (67.8.4) that Domitian would stage fights between dwarves or between women. This notice is about unusual spectacles put on by the emperor, and so may indicate that female gladiators were a novelty. It is also not clear whether, if and when women fought, they used sharp weapons. 6

The ancient data are also insufficient to determine fatality rates among gladiators, let alone the proportion of those killed in the run of combat versus those dispatched after an appeal was rejected. Vivid evidence, however, has come from gladiatorial epitaphs and cemeteries.

Gladiatorial Epitaphs and Cemeteries

The gravestones of gladiators, with their accompanying inscriptions (epitaphs), are revealing about their origins, lives, careers, and attitudes toward their profession. Gravestones were expensive monuments to purchase and erect, and those inscribed with elaborate texts and even images were more expensive still. Who dedicated the stone (and so paid for it) is an important consideration here, as are the circumstances of its commission. Since gladiators in a training school (ludus), being mostly slaves, are unlikely to have erected a gravestone without the permission of the manager (lanista), it remains an open question to what extent the attitudes expressed in these inscriptions reflect the unvarnished outlook of the individual fighter rather than an “official” ideology of the arena, as promoted by those who ran the spectacle industry. At Carnuntum in Austria, a burial ground near the ludus contains large monuments, stone sarcophagi, and simpler graves, and since such memorials could not exist without the lanista’s consent, they may well have served to promulgate those values by which the schools and their owners wished the trainees to live and die. 7 Nevertheless, the stones give some sense of how gladiators, at least officially, viewed themselves, their comrades-in-arms, and their profession, as well as how those who commemorated them thought they should be remembered by posterity. As such they are most instructive documents.

The gravestones themselves are often adorned with images of the deceased, along with his equipment and his palm fronds and/or crowns of victory. This alone gives an impression of professional pride among this cadre of elite fighters. The texts of the epitaphs bolster this impression. Some examples 8 :

Marcus Antonius Exochus, Thracian. M. Antonius Exochus, by birth an Alexandrian, (in the games given) at Rome to mark the triumph of the deified Trajan [117 ce ], on the second day, in his first ever appearance (tiro), he secured a draw (stans missus) with Araxis, imperial slave at Rome, on the ninth day of the same games, he caused Fimbria, freeborn, veteran of nine fights, to concede (missum fecit) . . . [text breaks off]

Flamma, secutor. He lived 30 years. He fought 34 times, won 21 times, drew (stans) 9 times, and was spared (missus) 4 times. Syrian by birth. Delicatus, his comrade-at-arms (coarmio), made (this tomb) for a worthy man.

To the souls of the departed. Lyco, freeborn (or freed), left-handed murmillo, four fights. Longinas, freeborn (or freed), contraretiarius, made (this tomb) for his well-deserving brother (frater).

To the souls of the departed. (Tomb of) Vitalis, unbeaten retiarius, Batavian by birth. He courageously fought it out to the end on an equal footing with his opponent he was fast in his fights. Himen (?), his messmate . . . [text breaks off]

(CIL XI 1070 = ILS 5118 = EAOR 2.46) 12

To the souls of the departed. For Urbicus, secutor of the first rank (primus palus), by birth Florentine, who fought 13 times. He lived 22 years. Olympias, his daughter, whom he left at 5 months old, and Fortunensis, his daughter’s slave, and Lauricia his wife (built this tomb) for a deserving husband, with whom she lived for seven years. I recommend that he who beats a man should kill him. His fans (amatores) will nurture his shade.

To the souls of the departed. Glauco, born at Mutina, veteran of seven fights, killed in the eighth. He lived 23 years, five days. Aurelia, along with his fans (amatores), (made this tomb) for a well-deserving husband. I recommend that each of you attend to his own fate don’t put your trust in Nemesis that’s how I was deceived! Hello! Goodbye!

To the souls of the departed. Pardo, from Dertona, veteran of ten fights, (lies) here, deceived in the eleventh. He lived 27 years. Arriane to her darling husband, who lived with me . . . [text breaks off]

Constantius, the sponsor of games (munerarius), to his gladiators on account of the popularity of his show (munus). He gave this grave as a tribute (munus) to Decoratus, who killed the retiarius Caeruleus, and then himself fell dead. The trainer’s rod killed them both the funeral pyre covers them both. Decoratus, secutor, veteran of nine fights, has bequeathed grief above all to his wife Valeria.

I, who was once celebrated in the amphitheater, have truly found oblivion, after killing my opponent, who was full of irrational bitterness. My name is Stephanos. After I was crowned winner for the tenth time in competition, I died and passed into eternity, bound in the bosom of the earth. Strength never left me, until the guardian of my life [i.e., a guardian deity?] killed me by tricks. Polychronis set up the inscription as a memorial.

Here I lie victorious, Diodorus the wretched. After breaking my opponent Demetrius, I did not kill him immediately. But murderous Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis [i.e., the chief umpire] killed me, and leaving the light I have gone to Hades. I lie in the land of the original inhabitants. A good friend buried me here because of his piety.

Pride in professional performance shines through in every case. The deceased are remembered by their armature, their rank, their fight statistics, and those personal traits pertinent to their appearances in the arena (e.g., courage, skill, speed, left-handedness). Even defeats ending with reprieve might be included in their statistics, since being spared spoke to the quality of the gladiator’s performance in the fight. They have fan clubs. In some cases, they have families. There is camaraderie among them, in that colleagues erect gravestones for dead “brothers” or “comrades-in-arms.” They are honoured by their peers and by the sponsors of games alike. And they are never, ever beaten outright by an opponent. Rather, if they fall in the arena, it is because of betrayal, trickery, or deceit, or because the umpire made a bad call. This refusal to concede honest defeat in the face of superior skill again speaks to professional pride and a certain braggadocio that is still operative today in combat sports.

While gladiators’ epitaphs are enlightening documents, finds of gladiator cemeteries offer even more instructive evidence. Several are known. Most recently, one has likely been identified at York in England. Containing eighty bodies, mostly male, the skeletons belong to men of robust build, many showing signs of severe injury, including in one case the teeth marks of a large carnivore. While the identification of the site as a cemetery for arena performers remains unverified on current evidence, it is the best interpretation of the site so far advanced. An unequivocal example of a gladiator cemetery was unearthed in Ephesos in 1993 . 19 Here dozens of skeletons were found in an enclosure, all but one of them young men aged between 20 and 30, some buried with accompanying grave reliefs depicting gladiators. The skeletons were of well-fed men whose bones showed signs of intensive training (such as stress at joints) and, more tellingly, injuries inflicted with weapons. Some of these were cut or penetration injuries, others blunt force traumas. The latter were possibly inflicted when helmets were bashed into skulls during fights. Twenty-one of the skeletons had twenty-six head injuries eleven had survived those injuries, demonstrating the high-quality medical care that gladiators received. The cut and penetration wounds to the heads were often at the front—which reflects the frontal nature of gladiatorial combat—but they remain something of a mystery, since most gladiators wore helmets. Perhaps some injuries were incurred outside the arena itself, in training or in private fights (one imagines that gladiators were violent men in general). Most lethal blows to the skulls were at the back or sides, perhaps administered after a failed appeal. One skull had a fatal wound of three penetrations in close proximity, showing that the person had been killed by a trident to the back of the head.

The evidence from the skeletons warns against whitewashing Roman gladiatorial shows as solely concerned with skill and artistry. Even if they were not the chaotic free-for-alls depicted in modern popular culture, even if part of their attraction indeed lay in watching athletic displays of expertise and talent, they were nevertheless very violent events in which performers were routinely killed or injured in horrible ways.

Figure 5. Skull with trident injury, Ephesus, Turkey. 2nd century ce .

Sources and Training of Gladiators

Willing, volunteer gladiators (auctorati) worked under contract, the details of which presumably varied by individual, but all had to take a fearsome oath agreeing to endure branding, being bound in chains, beaten with rods, and killed with steel (Petron. Sat. 117.5 Sen. Ep. 37.1). Since these were slavish indignities no freeborn Roman would tolerate, the oath effectively cast the volunteer out of respectable society. Why they enrolled remains a mystery. Ancient writers offer the moralizing explanations of bankruptcy and personal depravity (Dio 74.2.5 Luc. Tox. 58 Tert. Ad Mart. 5). The emperor Tiberius is on record as paying 100,000 sesterces each to some retired gladiators for their return to the arena, which shows that financial distress could indeed be alleviated by taking to the sand (Suet. Tib. 7.1). But that men of senatorial or equestrian status enrolled as gladiators suggests that other factors were at play, perhaps the same impulse that drives some today to engage in extreme sports. The great popularity of gladiators and their status as sex symbols may also have drawn elite volunteers, such that emperors had to issue bans on senators and equestrians enrolling to fight (Dio 54.2.5 Suet. Aug. 43.3). 20

Little is known about life in the ludus, but conditions must have been harsh for convicted criminals to be condemned to the place. Only three gladiatorial ludi are known to archaeology: the Ludus Magnus near the Colosseum in Rome, the ludus behind the theater in Pompeii, and the newly identified example at Carnuntum in Austria. 21

Figure 6. Ludus Magnus, Rome. 1st/2nd century ce .

The men were housed in cells, several occupants per cell. They trained at posts in an open area, shaped like an arena at Carnuntum and the Ludus Magnus, but a rectangular palaestra at Pompeii. These posts (pali) were the basis of a gladiatorial hierarchy that ranked the fighters from primus palus (literally, “first post”) down, perhaps as far as an eighth stratum. Presumably, higher-ranked gladiators enjoyed perks in the ludus, such as better quarters and rations.

Figure 7. Gladiatorial ludus, Pompeii. 1st century ce .

Inscriptions make clear that trainers (doctores) were themselves specialists, very likely with experience as gladiators themselves and instructing particular kinds of gladiators at their posts thus there are mentions of “trainer of murmillones” or “trainer of secutores,” and so on. Recruits were therefore selected and trained based on their suitability and aptitude for specific armatures, which in turn suggests that each type of gladiator had a style of fighting readily recognizable to the spectators.

The Status of Gladiators

Roman social thought was of a distinctly hierarchical cast. As a whole, the Romans organized their social universe by categorizing individuals into groups and then ranking them according to their perceived worth, both between and within groups. Thus, slaves were ranked below freeborn, free foreigners below citizens (until 212 ce , with Caracalla’s near-universal grant of citizenship to the freeborn), and so on. But within these broad groupings further hierarchies prevailed, even among slaves, so that farmhands toiling in the fields ranked below servants in townhouses or rustic villas, and citizens were classed into a hierarchy of “orders” (plebs, equestrians, senators, etc).

Gladiators were no different. As a whole, they were branded with infamia (“lack of good repute”). This was a legally defined status that debarred people deemed infames from various political, legal, and social privileges. It applied to actors, prostitutes, lanistae, and others, as well as to gladiators. The basic principle appears to have been that if you did not control your own body, or made a spectacle of yourself for money at the behest of an audience, you were infamis. This is why volunteer gladiators took the oath they did. When they consented to be bound, beaten, burned, and killed with iron, they effectively transferred control of their bodies to their trainers and the spectators in the arena. In doing so, they agreed to join the infames. Even their earnings were not to be taxed, since they were “contaminated by the stain of human blood” (CIL II 6278 = ILS 5163, l. 7 = EAOR 7.3). As a group, then, gladiators were officially rated among the lowest of the low, some of the most grotesque denizens of the Roman social basement.

Gladiators’ official status, however, was complicated by their public function, from which they could earn immense popularity and riches. Successful gladiators were celebrated and admired by their fans (the amatores discussed in Gladiatorial Epitaphs and Cemeteries, honouring dead gladiators), their career trajectories closely charted, and their skills praised. Martial, writing poetry in Flavian Rome, heaps praise on a famed gladiator, Hermes, “the martial delight of his day, skilled in all arms, both gladiator and trainer, . . . taught to win without harming, himself his own substitute, the riches of the ticket touts, the love and labour of gladiators’ women, . . . the glory of Mars universal” (Mart. Ep. 5.24). Gladiators were also sex symbols, to the extent that a term was coined for their female fans, ludiae (“training-school girls” see Juv. Sat. 6.104). And while some writers condemned the admiration of outcasts and convicts as typical of the masses’ lack of discernment (Tert. Spect. 22.2), they could themselves at the same time praise gladiators, a dichotomous attitude perfectly encapsulated by Cicero (Tusc. 2.41): “Gladiators, whether ruined men or barbarians, what wounds they endure! . . . When condemned men fight with swords, there could be no sturdier training for the eye against pain and death.” The sentiment finds echo over a century later when Pliny the Younger wrote of Trajan’s spectacles (Pan. 33.1): “Even in the bodies of slaves and criminals was seen a love of glory and a lust to win.” This is the “ambivalence of the gladiator,” a paradox generated by the tension between the gladiator’s rank, as fixed by his officially being infamis, and his status, as conferred by the popularity of his public performances. The key to understanding how the tension was resolved it is provided by Tertullian (Spect. 22.3): “the art (ars) they glorify, the artist (artifex) they stigmatize.” Like any slave, the gladiator’s personhood had been erased by his function. As long as he performed with skill (ars), he was admirable. If he failed, he lost his status and reverted to a social nothing (as was true of slaves in general). In contexts outside the arena, of course, his infamia rendered the gladiator contemptible. All of this applied equally to freeborn or freed auctorati, whose oath subjugated them to the demands of their art. The ambivalence of the gladiator, then, lay in the contrast between the reviled outcast and the skillful combatant, between his low rank set by custom and law and his elevated status earned by the proper display of skill in the arena. But that status was ephemeral and could be lost on a turn, and this is what made gladiators ultimately expendable.

Among the gladiators themselves, the status of individual fighters varied significantly. As discussed above, some were slaves, some were freeborn or freed. This distinction was conveyed to the crowd by the names gladiators bore. Thus the advertisement for a spectacle found painted on the wall of a house at Pompeii lists the upcoming combats in the following fashion (CIL IV 2508 = Sabbatini Tumolesi, 71–74 [no. 32]):

Thraex vs Murmillo

Pugnax, of the Neronian training school, three fights

Murranus, of the Neronian training school, three fights

Essedarii

P. Ostorius, fifty-one fights

Scylax, of the Julian training school, twenty-six fights

In the first fight, two slave gladiators with “stage names” (“Fighty” and “Perfume Boy”), both trained in the Neronian training school near Capua (and owned by the school and housed there?), were pitted against each other as a Thraex and a murmillo. The second fight featured two essedarii (charioteers), of whom one was a slave (Scylax is a Greek slave name), trained in the Julian school, also near Capua. The other, however, was listed simply as Publius Ostorius, a form of name borne by a freeborn Roman or freedman. Note also that Ostorius was not associated with any training school, since he was an independent agent operating under contract (an auctoratus). In this way, the very names of the gladiators proclaimed their relative status. In addition, the listing of prior fights (and sometimes wins) spoke to experience, and the palus-ranking could be used to indicate grades of success and skill. In all these ways, then, gladiators stood in an unequal hierarchical relationship to each other, derived from their original social standing, experience, and performance record to date.

The End of the Games

The educated pagan elite of the so-called central period of Roman history (c. 200 bce –200 ce ) long objected to the mass entertainments of the lower orders, and gladiatorial shows were included in their blanket condemnations. Thus Pliny the Younger famously complains to a friend about the masses’ blind enthusiasm for chariot racing Pliny is amazed by their unthinking partisanship for the colour of their favorite racing team (there were four: red, white, blue, and green) (Pliny, Letters 9.6). Theaters, too, were considered places of lascivious behaviour and unacceptable lassitude. But there was also a view that, alone among mass entertainments, gladiatorial combats offered spectators edifying examples of endurance, skill, and a healthy contempt for death and injury. 22 Nevertheless, the prevailing view that people sitting around in large numbers being entertained was a bad thing tended to overwhelm this perceived benefit in the minds of these authors, although in all such moralizing any particular rhetorical posture cannot be taken at face value as reflecting the writers’ actual views. Pagan opposition to the games rested not on humanitarian grounds—that is, concern about the cruelty and the violence done to those on the sand, who were all seen as worthless and deserving of their fates—but focused more on such matters as the vast expense of the spectacles, the moral rot of indolence, and the dangers and indignities of indulging raw passions.

Jewish and Christian opposition was no more “humanitarian,” and in fact echoes pagan writers’ arguments about the ill effects of watching on the spectator. The chief concern of monotheists was the idolatry associated with the games, which were often held during pagan religious festivals, in venues adorned with idols of pagan gods, and accompanied by parades and images of pagan worship. Entirely typical of this stance is the 3rd-century ce Christian writer Novatian (Spect. 2), who asks: “Is it not shameful, I say, shameful that men of faith, men who claim for themselves the title of the Christian name, use heavenly scripture to defend the vain superstitions of the pagans that are part of the spectacles, and lend divine sanction to idolatry?” 23

Bloody spectacles were first officially banned by Constantine in 325 ce on the notably vague grounds that they were “not pleasing in a time of civil and domestic peace” the emperor ordered that convicts formerly condemned to the arena be sent instead to the mines (Cod. Theod. 15.12. 1 Cod. Iust. 11.44). There is no hint here of humanitarian concern for victims of arena violence and, indeed, the main purpose of the rescript appears to be to ensure a steady supply of labour for the mines, where Constantine’s pagan opponent Licinius had sent Christians before his defeat the year before at the battle of Adrianople. Evidence for the continued staging of gladiatorial combats extends for about a century beyond this apparent blanket ban, so it is clear that the Christianizing of the empire did not in itself lead to the suppression of the games. The most likely reasons for the disappearance of gladiatorial spectacles are, first, their increasingly enormous expense, which was already a problem in the time of Marcus Aurelius when the senate issued a decree fixing prices for various classes of combatant (CIL II 6278 = ILS 5163 = EAOR 7.3) and, second, the drying up of sources of gladiators, possibly accelerated by Christian withdrawal from arena events. Gladiatorial combats did not come to an end in the Later Empire due to concern for their violence or on the back of moral objections to them. They ended for pragmatic and financial reasons, even as beast shows, hunts, and chariot racing continued—themselves very violent events.

Significance of the Combats

Making sense of the phenomenon of gladiatorial spectacles has proven a thorny issue for modern scholarship. A variety of interpretations of the games and their place in Roman culture have been proposed, some of which take their cues from attitudes expressed by ancient authors. For instance, the view that gladiators were embodiments of cardinal Roman virtues, such as courage, martial skill, endurance, and contempt for death echoes ancient justifications for the combats. Similarly, Juvenal’s famous dictum about the Roman people’s unhealthy obsession with bread and circuses (Sat. 10.78–81) undergirds the modern idea that the games were vehicles of social control, distractions to keep the people from recognizing their real loss of power under the emperors. The arena operated as a kind of Roman parliament where the people could put their demands and complaints directly to their ruler(s) in ways they could hardly do elsewhere. 24 A related proposal is that by staging mayhem under controlled conditions, the games offered a sort of cultural vaccination against the threat of unbridled violence. 25

Symbolic interpretations have also been advanced. The games have been read as celebrations of empire and the violence needed to establish and maintain it, while the hunt and execution phases in particular were expressions of Roman power over threatening natural forces and social deviance. The gladiator symbolized the promise of rebirth from social death by the enactment of vaunted Roman virtues (courage, martial skill, endurance, contempt for death, etc.). 26 The games fit neatly into the wider Roman context of ubiquitous slavery that viewed whole swaths of the population as mere instruments to be used and discarded at will, as well as being marked by a pervasive culture of violence and brutality. 27 Another view is that gladiatorial displays were a kind of human sacrifice, analogous to the massive blood rituals of the Aztecs. 28 Gladiatorial fights have been examined from gendered and class perspectives as expressions of Roman male values, which were marked by concerns of honour, competition, shame, and proper behaviour in public. They also buttressed traditional elite values of virtus in the face of a burgeoning plebeian culture that, as with the popular dice-and-piece board game alea, was enthralled by games that pitted skill against luck. 29

Increased appreciation for the vitality of Hellenic culture under Roman rule has further complicated the picture by suggesting different attitudes toward gladiators in the Greek East, where athletes had their own traditional status, and the Latin West. Thus the Cibyra reliefs have been thought to represent a distinctly Hellenic view of gladiatorial combat, and the presentation of gladiators on eastern tombstones may shed new light on the process of Romanization. 30

Finally, gladiatorial shows have been examined from psychiatric and psychological perspectives. One Freudian study seeks to draft a mental map of the Romans and determines they were caught in a vise between desire and despair, a condition manifested by the gladiator, who was both a despised social outcast and an admired, skillful sex symbol. 31 Another approach has been to deploy social psychology to elucidate the mental mechanisms that allow spectators, not just the Romans, to take pleasure in harm done to others. This approach invites us to consider not just the cultural and historic conditions specific to the Romans, but the transhistorical and transcultural components of the attraction to violence as entertainment. 32 The gladiator, then, remains for modern scholars as enigmatic and ambiguous a figure as he was for the ancients who gazed upon his struggles on the sand.


Roman Gladiators: How They Compare to Modern Sporting Heroes

As you know from reading our earlier blog post in January, Super Bowl XLVII and the Superstars of Ancient Rome had a lot in common with today’s American football stars. There are so many intriguing parallels that we thought the topic deserved another look. So, enjoy part two of this series exploring the connections between the Roman gladiators and the sports celebrities of today.

Much like today’s modern sporting heroes, gladiators had a lot of sex appeal. Just as women today frequent events to see their favourite crush, ancient women would attend gladiatorial games thrilled to see their favourite fighter. And while modern women sometimes have the ability to act on their desires by approaching their sporting crushes at social gatherings or contacting them on Facebook, Roman women did not have the same access. Instead, for the more advantaged woman, she paid to have her desires fulfilled by her favourite gladiator in his cell.

Today’s sporting heroes have lots of merchandise with their names and faces celebrated on everything from t-shirts to cereal boxes. Gladiators also had items that commemorated them and their valiant battles. Two examples are the Colchester Vase and the Gladiator mosaic at the Galleria Borghese.

The Colchester Vase depicts different classes of gladiator fighting each other and also gives the names of each gladiator above him, such as Valentinus and Secundus. From the image below, one can see a secutor facing off against a retiarius the secutor class of gladiator was cultivated to fight the retiarius class[1]. They were equipped with a tall rectangular shield, a helmet similar to that of the murmillo, greaves and a gladius. To protect the wearer from the deadly net and trident of the retiarius, the secutor’s helmet covered the whole face with two small holes for the eyes and was rounded[2]. While on the other hand, the retiarius was very lightly armoured with only an arm guard, called a manica, in addition to his net and trident. As well as these two individuals, the Colchester Vase depicts a bestiarius. A bestiarius was a beast fighter and in this particular case he is depicted fighting a bear with hunting dogs and a companion.

Detail of the Villa Borghese gladiator mosaic. Image courtesy of Neddyseagoon.

The Gladiator mosaic at the Galleria Borghese also depicts gladiators fighting and has their names written above the figures, such as Baccibus and Astacius. Here again one can discern particular classes of gladiators, such as the secutor and retiarius. An interesting note on this mosaic is the Greek letter Ɵ, for θάνατος meaning “dead”, beside one of the gladiators, who obviously was slain in the fight. This mosaic is a pictorial recreation of a fight that actually occurred and identifies the dead gladiators as well as the victorious ones. Just as modern famous sporting events are memorialized, we can see that famous gladiatorial contests were treated in the same way.

Another interesting similarity between the gladiatorial games and today’s sporting events is the attire of the players. Just as the gladiators wore armour to protect their bodies, many sports today require the players to wear protective gear. One example is American football. While the armour of the gladiator was meant to stop sword and spear thrusts, the armour of the American footballer is there to lessen the impact of the opposition’s tackle.

Unfortunately, armour and padding is not enough to prevent many injuries, and like today’s players, gladiators were a significant investment and were cared for especially well. Similar to modern athletes, gladiators had a highly regulated diet this consisted of dried fruit, barley, oatmeal, boiled beans and ash, which the Romans believed help fortify the body[3]. After training and fights, the gladiators would be given massages and had access to high class medical care to make sure their master’s investment was properly looked after and fighting fit for the next bout.

Mosaic at the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, 4th century AD

Today, when the game or match gets especially out of hand, we have referees who step in and make sure the rules are obeyed. Gladiatorial games also employed referees to help officiate the match. There was the senior referee, called the summa rudis, and an assistant to help him. They had long staffs, called rudes, by which they could separate opponents or caution them. Just like modern day referees, they could pause or stop the match whenever they deemed it necessary[4]. A mosaic from the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid depicts a referee officiating a gladiatorial contest. He is clearly identifiable in a white tunic holding his staff and gesturing to the gladiators.

As in modern times, where one can see the likes of David Beckham spending an evening with Prince Harry in one of the elite London clubs, gladiators were also known to attend banquets and events at the Emperor’s request, an invitation not to be turned down when proffered by such emperors as Domitian and Commodus. Also, just as Princes William and Harry are known to play in charity polo matches, emperors such as Caligula, Titus and Commodus were known to have frequented the arena themselves and take on the persona of a gladiator. Commodus was said to have killed one hundred lions in a day, when he styled himself as a bestiarius [5].

Riot in the amphitheatre fresco from Pompeii, now in the National Archaeological Museum at Naples

If you love sports today you probably support a specific team, such as the Giants or the Seahawks. The Romans were no different. They supported certain classes of gladiators and each group had its own name: the Romans that supported the secutor class of gladiator (equipped with a large rectangular shield) were called secutarii, while the thraex and murmillo classes’ supporters were called parmularii because those gladiators were equipped with small shields[6]. The same can be said for local rivalries. Just as today when certain groups of football fans (or thugs, as most people would call them) clash before and after the match, the same would occur sporadically after gladiatorial contests. One such occasion occurred at Pompeii during the reign of Nero in 59 AD insults that were traded by Pompeian and Nucerian fans sparked a riot during a set of gladiatorial games, which caused Nero to ban games in Pompeii for ten years. This incident is depicted on a fresco in the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples, taken from a domus in Pompeii[7].

We may think that our flashy celebrities and loud, exciting sporting events are modern-day creations, but it’s easy to see that the Romans were getting rowdy and turning players/fighters into heroes long before our modern obsession with sporting games. It’s quite obvious that fans’ adoration—and adrenaline highs–trump the boundaries of time and culture.

1. Junkelmann, M., Das Spiel mit dem Tod. So kämpften Roms Gladiatoren. Mainz am Rhein. 2000. 59-61


Detailing the Gladiatorial Fight

One of the highlights of the inaugural games must have been the battle between Priscus and Verus. Whilst other gladiatorial battles were also held during the celebrations, the battle between Priscus and Verus is unique in that it is the only detailed description of a Roman gladiatorial fight that has survived till today. The battle between these two men can be found in Martial’s On the Public Shows of Domitian , and is as follows:

“While Verus and Priscus were prolonging the combat, and the valour of each had been for a long time equal, quarter for the combatants was demanded with great clamour. But Caesar obeyed his own law. The law was to fight with a stated reward in view, till by his thumb one of the pair proclaimed himtelf vanquished: but, as was allowed, he frequently gave them dishes and gifts. An end, however, was found for the well-matched contest: equal they fought, equal they resigned. Caesar sent wands to each, to each the meed of victory. Such was the reward that adroit valour received. Under no other prince save thee, Caesar, has this ever happened, that, when two fought with each other, both were victors.”


Schools and training

The earliest named gladiator school (singular: ludus plural: ludi) is that of Aurelius Scaurus at Capua. He was lanista of the gladiators employed by the state circa 105 BC to instruct the legions and simultaneously entertain the public. [124] Few other lanistae are known by name: they headed their familia gladiatoria, and had lawful power over life and death of every family member, including servi poenae, auctorati and ancillaries. Socially, they were infames, on a footing with pimps and butchers and despised as price gougers. [125] No such stigma was attached to a gladiator owner (munerarius or editor) of good family, high status and independent means [126] Cicero congratulated his friend Atticus on buying a splendid troop – if he rented them out, he might recover their entire cost after two performances. [127]

The Spartacus revolt had originated in a gladiator school privately owned by Lentulus Batiatus, and had been suppressed only after a protracted series of costly, sometimes disastrous campaigns by regular Roman troops. In the late Republican era, a fear of similar uprisings, the usefulness of gladiator schools in creating private armies, and the exploitation of munera for political gain led to increased restrictions on gladiator school ownership, siting and organisation. By Domitian's time, many had been more or less absorbed by the State, including those at Pergamum, Alexandria, Praeneste and Capua. [128] The city of Rome itself had four the Ludus Magnus (the largest and most important, housing up to about 2,000 gladiators), Ludus Dacicus, Ludus Gallicus, and the Ludus Matutinus, which trained bestiarii. [45]

In the Imperial era, volunteers required a magistrate's permission to join a school as auctorati. [129] If this was granted, the school's physician assessed their suitability. Their contract (auctoramentum) stipulated how often they were to perform, their fighting style and earnings. A condemned bankrupt or debtor accepted as novice (novicius) could negotiate with his lanista or editor for the partial or complete payment of his debt. Faced with runaway re-enlistment fees for skilled auctorati, Marcus Aurelius set their upper limit at 12,000 sesterces. [130]

All prospective gladiators, whether volunteer or condemned, were bound to service by a sacred oath (sacramentum). [131] Novices (novicii) trained under teachers of particular fighting styles, probably retired gladiators. [132] They could ascend through a hierarchy of grades (singular: palus) in which primus palus was the highest. [133] Lethal weapons were prohibited in the schools – weighted, blunt wooden versions were probably used. Fighting styles were probably learned through constant rehearsal as choreographed "numbers". An elegant, economical style was preferred. Training included preparation for a stoical, unflinching death. Successful training required intense commitment. [134]

Those condemned ad ludum were probably branded or marked with a tattoo (stigma, plural stigmata) on the face, legs and/or hands. These stigmata may have been text – fugitive slaves were marked thus on the forehead until Constantine banned the use of facial stigmata in 325 AD. Soldiers were marked on the hand. [135]

Gladiators were typically accommodated in cells, arranged in barrack formation around a central practice arena. Juvenal describes the segregation of gladiators according to type and status, suggestive of rigid hierarchies within the schools: "even the lowest scum of the arena observe this rule even in prison they're separate". Retiarii were kept away from damnati, and "fag targeteers" from "armoured heavies". As most ordinarii at games were from the same school, this kept potential opponents separate and safe from each other until the lawful munus. [136] Discipline could be extreme, even lethal. [137] Remains of a Pompeian ludus site attest to developments in supply, demand and discipline in its earliest phase, the building could accommodate 15–20 gladiators. Its replacement could have housed about 100 and included a very small cell, probably for lesser punishments and so low that standing was impossible. [138]

Diet and medical care

Despite the harsh discipline, gladiators represented a substantial investment for their lanista and were otherwise well fed and cared for. Their daily, high-energy, vegetarian diet consisted of barley, boiled beans, oatmeal, ash and dried fruit. Gladiators were sometimes called hordearii ("eaters of barley)". Romans considered barley inferior to wheat — a punishment for legionaries replaced their wheat ration with it — but it was thought to strengthen the body. [139] Regular massage and high quality medical care helped mitigate an otherwise very severe training regimen. Part of Galen's medical training was at a gladiator school in Pergamum where he saw (and would later criticise) the training, diet, and long term health prospects of the gladiators. [140]


The Gladiators of the Colosseum

When we visit the colosseum, the main reference we have for the men who fought in the arena is from Hollywood. Ridley Scott’s movie Gladiator starring Russell Crowe as Maximus with rippling muscles actually doesn’t do too bad a job at portraying the life of a gladiator. Maximus is captured far away from his home and enslaved, sold by slave traders to a gladiator school (managed by Oliver Reed). He impresses his manager and the crowd with his fighting skills, women throw themselves at him and he eventually makes it to Rome to fight where he becomes an overnight sensation. How close to the reality is this? Probably not too far!

Gladiatore in Latin means swordsman, named after a standard issue thrusting short-sword called the Gladius . Originally used at funerals or munera to honour the dead, Gladiatorial combat for entertainment was already popular by the 1 st century BC. Over a century later, amphitheatres would be built all over the empire to satisfy the people’s newfound interest in the gladiatorial games.

Who were the gladiators?

Originally, they were prisoners-of-war, slaves and criminals , later even volunteers who were down on their luck or were seeking fame. With its rapid military expansion Rome had a ready supply of prisoners of war – these men already had fighting experience and so could be trained up in little time to be gladiators. The games were big business and for a lanista or manager taking an ordinary man and turning him into a gladiator was a waste of time and money. We should think less of fodder for the arena and more of trained, skilled fighters who put on a show much like our boxing, fencing and wrestling today.

There were several different types of gladiator classified by costume and fighting style, some of the earlier types reflected early enemies of Rome like the Samnites and the Thracians , they wore similar armour and used their specific fighting styles. In times of peace the game’s needed a steady supply of criminals, who had to have powerful physiques and know how to fight. Criminals could be sentenced to the courts or thrown to the beasts a lesser penalty was to be trained in the Gladiator schools – being a gladiator gave some hope of survival.

Gladiators were big money like footballers today

On average men were chosen between 18-20 years old, like our sports stars today, by 30 they were all washed up. A gladiator signed a contract of five years, they won prize money and at the end of their service would gain their freedom (if they weren’t dead). The lanista was much like a football manager

today (they took a cut from the winnings). Gladiators were a valuable commodity they had to be housed and fed, given armour, trained and attended to by a doctor if they were sick or injured – think of them like racehorses, an investment.

Training was with wooden weapons and wicker shields that were heavily weighted to build muscle and develop control. Their diet was heavy in carbohydrates like barley and beans to bulk them up – much like bodybuilders today. The aim was to cover the well-honed muscles with a protective layer of fat fatty flesh produces a lot of blood but does little damage .

The gladiators lived in a barracks consisting of single celled rooms surrounding a training arena in the centre. Behind the colosseum part of the Ludus Magnus still exists, this was the largest of four such training arenas which had a passage that connected to the colosseum. This whole area (today covered by restaurants and posh hotels) was a complex of service buildings built by the emperor Domitian. The complex had four training arenas, an armoury, a hospital, morgue and even a butcher – the animals were cut up and fed to the other animals or perhaps even to the crowd. Why not an ostrich burger for lunch?


Gladiators in Britain

Compared with most other provinces of the Roman empire, Britain has surprisingly little evidence for gladiators. The differences between Britain’s amphitheatres may help to explain this. Those sited at the legionary fortresses of Chester and Caerleon were built in the AD 70s to serve legionaries – the citizen-soldiers of Rome. Drawn from all over the empire, they would have expected to be provided with an amphitheatre – both for entertainment and to enact games on festivals associated with the imperial cult.
The legionary amphitheatres were stone-built like many across the empire. However, at the British tribal capitals the Romans built earthwork amphitheatres. There is evidence to show that these were infrequently used, and it appears that the native population didn’t wholly embrace the Mediterranean concept of the Roman games.
Despite this, there is evidence for the presence of gladiators. In 1738, a stone relief was found near Chester amphitheatre showing a left-handed retiarius – the only such depiction from the empire. And at Caerleon, a graffito on a stone shows the trident and galerus of a retiarius flanked by victory palms. These are the only references to gladiators from any British amphitheatre, and both are from the legionary sites.
In Britain there is but a single gladiator wall painting. Of the three gladiator mosaics left to us, the best is a frieze of cupid-gladiators at the villa of Bignor in Sussex. This features a secutor, a retiarius, and the summa rudis (referee) in a comic strip of an arena event.
Knife handles in bone and bronze are also found in the form of gladiators. An evocative piece is a potsherd discovered in Leicester in 1851, on which was scratched the words “VERECVNDA LVDIA : LVCIVS GLADIATOR”, or “Verecunda the actress, Lucius the gladiator”. This love token may relate to a couple in Britain but there is ambiguity. The pottery is of a type imported from Italy, and the graffito may have been made there as well.
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The retiarius is perhaps the most extraordinary of all the gladiator classes, and his equipment shows most clearly the carefully choreographed balance between strength and vulnerability that ensured a degree of fairness and balance in gladiatorial combat.
The retiarius was almost wholly unprotected. If he was right-handed, his left arm would be protected by a padded manica, and on his left shoulder would be strapped a high shoulder-guard, the galerus. An example of a galerus was found in the Pompeii barracks, decorated with a dolphin and a trident, a crab and the anchor and rudder of a ship.

Bronze greaves (leg protectors) discovered at Pompeii’s gladiator barracks. The discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum transformed our knowledge of ancient Rome, and the lives of its arena-warriors. (AKG Images)
The retiarius wore no helmet, but he was armed with a long-handled trident, a short knife and a lead-weighted net or rete, after which he was named. The net could be used as a flail, but it is clear that the job of the retiarius was to throw the net over his opponent, catching the fish-like secutor, and then dispatching him with the trident.
Once he’d thrown the net the retiarius could use the trident as a pole arm. This is when the galerus comes into play: when using the trident two-handed, the left shoulder would be forward, and the galerus would prove an effective head-guard.
One tomb relief of a retiarius from Romania shows him holding what seems to be a four-bladed knife. The identity of this weapon remained a mystery until archaeologists discovered a femur at the Ephesus cemetery. This showed a healed wound just above the knee consisting of four punctures in the pattern of a four on dice.
The effectiveness of the retiarius is gruesomely revealed by the punctured skull discovered in Ephesus, but he did not always get his own way. A mosaic from Rome, now in Madrid, shows two scenes from a fight between a secutor named Astanax and the retiarius Kalendio. Kalendio threw his net over Astanax, but when he caught his trident in the folds of the net, Astanax could cut his way out and defeat Kalendio, who was then killed.

The skull of one of the 68 gladiators’ skeletons found in Ephesus in 1993. The bones suggest that the fighters usually died from large, single wounds, rather than numerous smaller ones – the kind delivered in a coup de grâce. (Medical University of Vienna)
The same mosaic features another figure – an unarmed man in a tunic carrying a light wand. He is the summa rudis, the referee, reminding us that this was not a free-for-all, but a fight that must be carried out within a framework of rules and rituals. These rules would clearly be understood by the audience, who would have been at least as appreciative of the fighters’ skills as excited by pure blood-lust.
The audience would also have been fully aware who was putting on such entertainment for them. Gladiatorial shows were almost always staged by leading citizens – often to enhance their political careers by currying favour with the electorate. Thus the walls of Pompeii are daubed with painted election notices, alongside advertisements for gladiatorial spectacles.
One of many examples, found near the forum, reads: “The gladiatorial troupe of Aulus Suettius Certus will fight at Pompeii on 31 May. There will be a hunt and awnings. Good fortune to all Neronian games.”
There is little doubt about the popularity of the combats. Even tombs are covered with scratched graffiti showing the results of particular fights. A cartoon of two gladiators fighting in neighbouring Nola is captioned “Marcus Attius, novice, victor Hilarius, Neronian, fought 14, 12 victories, reprieved.”

The tombstone of a murmillo gladiator, holding the palm of victory. His helmet lies beside him on the ground. (Alamy)
This says a lot. Attius unexpectedly beat a veteran, but, like most of the combats recorded at Pompeii, the loser was spared. Being a gladiator was not an automatic sentence of violent death. The person funding the games (the editor) would commission a troupe (familia) of gladiators run by a proprietor/trainer (lanista). One such lanista, recorded in Pompeian graffiti,was Marcus Mesonius. He would acquire gladiators from the slave market. Legally, gladiators were the lowest of the low in Roman society, but a trained gladiator was a valuable commodity to a lanista, representing a considerable investment of time and money, and it would be in his interest to keep his stable well and to minimise the death rate.

Survival rates


Mosaic with Gladiators and Referee - History

The word 'gladiator comes from the Latin word for sword, gladius, so it literally means a swordsman.

The best way to get a man to fight to the death is to use a man who has nothing to lose, which is why slaves, criminals, and prisoners-of-war were ideal for the job. If a man was really good, he might keep winning and get his freedom.

Thousands of men and women were killed in combat or by animals for the entertainment of the people.


Secutos

Slaves weren't the only gladiators. Some freemen (ordinary Romans) volunteered too.

Gladiator School

It was important that the Gladiator entertainment was worth watching so only men with serious fighting potential were chosen. They were trained in special gladiator schools called ludi.

Gladiator Weapons

Different gladiators had different tools and weapons:

  • Myrmillo: Wore a fish-like helmet and had an oblong shield and a sword.
  • Retiaritus: Fought with a net, brandishing either a trident or a dagger.
  • Secutos: Had a shield, sword, heavy helmet, and armour on one arm.
  • Sagitarius: fought with a bow and arrow
  • Thrax: Armed with a curved sword and a small shield.

Gladiator shows usually opened with animal hunts and fights. The animals were kept in underground chambers. On the day of the games, they were lifted up into the arena and sent out to do their work.

Learn more from

Roman Gladiator
The life of a Roman gladiator.- Gory things you would rather not know! Will you live or die after your first fight as a Roman gladiator? Find out what fate awaits you on your journey to the arena.

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I teach computers at The Granville School and St. John's Primary School in Sevenoaks Kent.


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